Pastor: Don't Give Up Social Media For Lent

For many Christians, the season of Lent is a time for making sacrifices. It's an opportunity to cut back on certain indulgences or kick a bad habit. In the digital age, time spent on Facebook and Twitter might also be considered fair game. But some clergy say not so fast. In Tell Me More's weekly "Faith Matters" conversation, host Michel Martin speaks with Pastor Bruce Reyes-Chow of the Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco about the role of social media in the practice of faith during Lent.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, spring is almost here and I, for one, am ready for it.

It marks a new beginning and that's especially true for those who observe Nowruz, or Persian New Year. We'll talk about the sights, sounds and tastes of this holiday. That is in a few minutes.

But, now, on our weekly Faith Matters conversation, we wanted to talk about that 40-day period of sacrifice, prayer and reflection observed by Christians as they look toward Easter. It started last week with Ash Wednesday, and if you don't observe it yourself, you may have heard neighbors, coworkers or friends talking about what they are giving up for Lent.

The actor Alec Baldwin joked to The Daily Beast that he would be giving up Catholic guilt. But joking aside, it's common for people, even those who are not particularly observant, to temporarily abstain from something that they like, in many traditions, meat or dairy products or sweets. And increasingly, many people are also using Lent as an opportunity to kick or cut back on a habit like smoking or on all that time spent on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

But now some religious thinkers are saying perhaps there should be less emphasis on what we give up and more on what we do. Pastor Bruce Reyes-Chow has that idea. He's the pastor of the Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco. And in a blog on SFGate.com, he challenges the conventional approach to Lent and he's with us now on the line from San Francisco. Reverend, thanks so much for joining us.

Reverend BRUCE REYES-CHOW (Pastor, Mission Bay Community Church): Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, for people who are not entirely familiar, what is Lent and what is its purpose?

Rev. REYES-CHOW: Well, you did a great job. It really is the 40 days that prepare the Christians before Easter. It is a lot longer than that on the calendar, but we don't count Sundays as part of that, so it's actually 47 actual days. But it's a time where we remember the temptations of Christ. We also remember 40 years of wandering of the Israelites. It's a time where we think about the things that hold us back and separate us from God.

MARTIN: Well, no, many religious traditions do have various periods of fasting or abstaining from many things, whether it's food or intimate relations, for example. What is the purpose of fasting in the traditional sense?

Rev. REYES-CHOW: There's a couple of ways that the Christians frame that. One is it's a cleansing and a time to give up those things that pollute, muddy our relationship with God, to kind of purify our bodies and minds. And that's one take.

During Lent, when folks participate in giving up something and fasting from particular things, it's a reminder of where we come from and it doesn't actually come from those things that we eat or the material things in our world, that our life comes from God.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with the Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow. He is pastor of the Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco. We're talking about Lent.

You pastor a church that, as I understand it, is really young. It's predominantly 20 to 30-year-olds. And one would think that perhaps encouraging people to give up social media would be a no-brainer. But you're saying not so fast.

Rev. REYES-CHOW: Yeah, you know, pastoring a church that's in its 20s and 30s and myself not being of that ilk, I turned 40 about 18 months ago, it's a different world for me. You know, I didn't grow up with social media. I didn't grow up with that kind of technology. I was right at the beginning in the cusps of that. Whereas I think there's a generation of people now where that's the air they breathe, it's the water they drink, it's the world in which they live.

And when taken seriously, it's a way that people have connected in community, both Facebook, Twitter and a variety of social media platforms, that it's actually how folks are engaging in church.

And so I would say that, sure, if social media is addictive and it's holding you back from connecting to God and your understanding of spirituality, then, yes, by all means, pull back. But I think that oftentimes social media is allowing people to be church in a way that is unprecedented in our culture today. In fact, we should figure out, how do folks use social media even more effectively to be church during this time is another way to look at it.

MARTIN: You describe that in your blog post. You say that, well, if your social networking or your church life keeps you away from God in ways that you think outweighs the ways in which it connects you, give it up for Lent and then develop better practices for the long term. But you also say that if you find that social networking and/or your church life brings you joy, feeds your soul and you deal well with all the other stuff, then email this post to the person who told you to give up social networking for Lent and then find something for your life that fits those other two criteria and give that up.

So, talk to me a little bit more about that. What do you think is a better approach than just sort of giving stuff up?

Rev. REYES-CHOW: The blog post was a little bit to push back on this idea that if you just follow the rules, then you can achieve something. Whereas, I think you have to look deeper at the meaning of, what does it mean for us to really acknowledge those things in our life that hold us back from experiencing a deep connection to the divine? It might be social media, sure. But it could just be how we interact with each other.

MARTIN: Well, just to give people a clue to your own social networking patterns, I will say that your profile says that - and I do want to mention that you were previously the moderator of the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church denomination, which is a position of leadership in the entire denomination. I just want to mention that your congregation is one of the highest reviewed religious organizations on Yelp.com.

Rev. REYES-CHOW: It's a little weird, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So, you're thoroughly immersed. Well, give us some ideas of what other ways that people might explore the meaning and reflection that is intended by Lent. One of the things you talked about, for example, is living on a food stamp budget for a week.

Rev. REYES-CHOW: Yes. So, our congregation is taking seriously people's lives. And 20s and 30s, you know, I think that there are us 40-year-olds who like to believe that we know what it's like to be 20 and 30. But I think today's lifestyle and pace and patterns are different than even 10 or 20 years ago. And I really am grateful that folks in our congregation would be willing to give up another hour or another hour and a half each week to engage in some kind of spiritual discipline.

And so we've challenged our congregation to gather, in addition to Sundays and how we connect online, to gather together for a time of reflection during the week. And through this whole series, we're looking at food ethics and how is our body and mind and soul fed.

And one of the things that we're doing is for a week, participating in what we're calling the food stamp diet. Just acknowledging that there is a world and a way of living that is different than what we do.

And so we're challenging all of our folks for a week - and we'll see how many actually do it - to live on four dollars a day per person. It really is very symbolic and we acknowledge that right off, that most of us know that at the end of that week, we get to go back to having our coffee every day and things. But we're trying to kind of jolt our system into understanding that some folks live very differently than us.

MARTIN: OK, that's one week. What about the other 30 days?

Rev. REYES-CHOW: So, we're doing a variety of things. So, we're doing one week we're going to focus on clean water, both in an urban setting as well as in a global setting. Another week we're looking at how sustainability works in areas of the world that are impacted by war and we're particularly looking at an organization called Invisible Children, who is working with child soldiers in northern Uganda. We have a lot of different things that are all looking at nourishment of our soul, nourishment of the city and of the world.

MARTIN: The Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow is the pastor of the Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco. He also blogs for SFGate.com and The Huffington Post. He also - he has his own blog, Reyes-Chow.com. He blogs, as we mentioned, even during Lent. And Pastor Bruce joined us from San Francisco. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rev. REYES-CHOW: Thank you for having me.

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